What do you see?: Going Back to Basics

By asking this simple question, we can mediate our students into deeper thinking by allowing them to share what they know.

Learning August 23, 2021

One of my favourite games to play on car trips when I was a kid was ‘I Spy’. ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with….’. I would try and find the hardest thing I could think of to trick my brother and sisters. Now that I have kids of my own, I have spent moments in the car trying to see what they have spied with their little eyes. A quote by Akil Victor, a novelist and poet, reads: “One mouth, Two eyes, Two ears. Talk less, observe more, listen better.”

What if we as educators talked less and allowed our students to tell us what they see so that, through listening, we learn more about what they already know?

Professor Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli clinical, developmental, and cognitive psychologist, and the creator of Instrumental Enrichment, developed his work to intentionally and sequentially teach children how to think through the process of mediation – questioning and guidance from an adult. (For more information on Instrumental Enrichment please refer to my previous article, ‘Just a moment…Let me think’.)

Professor Feuerstein believed everyone is modifiable; we can all grow and learn. This is supported by studies on neuroplasticity and Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindsets. Schools and even businesses have been spending time focusing on Growth Mindsets and how to shift not only students, but the adults that work with them from a fixed mindset to the power of ‘Yet’. This YouTube clip by Carol explains how we can develop a Growth Mindset.  

In his book, Beyond Smarter: Mediated Learning and the Brain’s Capacity for Change, Professor Feuerstein explained thinking in three different stages:

  1. Input phase: how we gather information
  2. Elaboration phase: how we process that information
  3. Output phase: the way we communicate the results of the previous two phases

If a student doesn’t give us the correct response it may be that they don’t have all the correct information in the input phase or that they are processing the information incorrectly in the elaboration phase. As educators, it’s part of our duty to recognise which phase we need to go back to with the student and not just conclude that they simply don’t know. 

A good example of this is when a high school teacher at my previous school was explaining to me how she taught a wonderful lesson on vitamins. At the end of the session as the students were leaving one stopped and asked her “Miss, what is a vitamin?” Through the training I was delivering, that teacher realised the importance of finding out what the students already know. She said, “If I had just shown them some pictures of vitamins and asked them ‘What do you see?’ ‘Where have you seen these before?’ or ‘What are they used for?’ I would have had a clearer picture of my students’ understanding and then I could have tweaked my lesson at the beginning to make it richer.”

How different would our classrooms look if we gave our students more voice in their learning process and actually asked them what they already know about the topic? We already use pre-testing to give us formative feedback on what the students know. By simply asking students “What do you see?”, they can function in the input phase and focus on the task. They will systematically search and gather information as they say what they see. By labelling what they see, we will know how much they know. 

My Year 3 students love it when I ask them “What do you see?”. Their confidence is boosted when they begin to tell me and their peers all they know about the topic instead of ‘teaching’ them. You’ll have a few students who will say ‘huh?’ but the others usually rally around them and help them fill in the gaps of their understanding. 

Our school has been blessed with three new teachers this year, of which two are alumni. I did an Instrumental Enrichment lesson in their class a few months ago and one of them couldn’t believe the simple question “What do you see?” could make such a difference. She noticed that students who weren’t saying much were talking and could see things that she hadn’t even thought about. 

Take on the challenge to start your next class with “What do you see?” and begin your journey of mediating our students into deeper thinking by allowing them to share what they know.


Isabelle Millien

Isabelle Millien M.ED student at Avondale University College. Head of Primary and Year 5 Teacher at Henderson College, Victoria, Australia. Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Meditation Coach for 7 years. A passion for helping students find their true potential and their love for learning.

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